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Which products are really green?

Green toilet bowl cleaner from the makers of Clorox. (And they wonder why we have some doubts.)

Green toilet bowl cleaner from the makers of Clorox. (And they wonder why we have some doubts.)

Mark and Laura Hambrecht are exactly the kind of couple that "eco-friendly" marketers long to lure. They're young. They're smart. And like so many 20-somethings, they're "green."

Mark, 25, rides his bike to his job in the tech shop of a repertory theater. Laura, 24, turns off her unused lights, recycles and cleans with soap and water rather than detergent. To conserve gas, the couple has only one car.

Yet a few days ago, the Kansas City couple stood in a supermarket surrounded by scads of new environmentally friendly products, from Lipton's natural green tea to a "biodegradable degreaser" by Power X. The Hambrechts were buying none of it.

"I don't like to buy the products that are 'green,' " Mark Hambrecht said. "I pretty much think it's a lot of hype. It's still all coming from the same companies that poison the environment."

Thirty-eight years after the first Earth Day, the nation's desire to save Mother Earth has never been greater. Yet among some people it has also created an unintended backlash, what some term "green fatigue." As companies send a tsunami of "green" products into stores, a growing segment of the public finds itself looking at the trend with jaundiced eyes.

"I want to believe it, but when you see brands like Clorox going green, it's hard to believe," said Lori Felder, 24.

Sometimes, when Felder finds herself standing in the market deciding whether to buy locally grown vegetables sprayed with pesticides or organic lettuce shipped 1,500 miles, she wonders which decision is really better for the environment. "It's easy to think that what I'm doing isn't going to help at all," she said.

The sentiment is hardly new to Colleen Ryan, a research analyst and consulting ecologist for Mintel, a Chicago firm that follows consumer trends. In a Mintel survey of 3,000 people, 60 percent said they agreed with the statement, "I often wonder if a product is really 'green' or if the company is just saying that it is."

"What's interesting," Ryan said, "is that it seems that the people who know the most, who are the most interested, are the most skeptical."

That skepticism only deepens when claims come from corporations with dubious environmental records, such as oil companies and auto makers. Environmentalists and others have coined a term — "green washing" — to describe the way some companies either falsely label products as "green" or that tout their meager "green" accomplishments while causing larger environmental problems.

"There is a lot of green washing going on," said Suzanne Shelton of the Shelton Group, a Tennessee marketing firm that tracks the green market. "Consumers are getting a lot savvier about how to sniff that out."

Environmentalists urge people not to allow the deluge of "green wash" to dissuade them from action. Earth's problems are enormous, they say, but even small positive personal actions — changing light bulbs, driving less, recycling — do make a difference.

"Multiplied out by millions of homes, millions of communities, factories, stores, you do have an appreciable impact," said Francisco de la Chesnaye, chief of climatic economics for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

It is generally believed, de la Chesnaye said, that even if America stopped all carbon emissions now, the Earth's temperature still would continue to rise for the next 50 years. Real strides in solving the Earth's problems will require the U.S. and other nations to develop "transformative" energy sources — solar, wind, perhaps even a return to nuclear power.

"It's important to stress: No one thing is going to solve this problem," de la Chesnaye said.

Where to find help

Several Web sites help consumers track legitimate green products. Among them:

coopamerica.com

greenshopper.com

The Federal Trade Commission's Web site (ftc.gov) includes information on "Sorting Out Green Advertising."

Which products are really green? 04/22/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 22, 2008 11:29am]
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